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Coleman Glacier Headwall

WA Cascades West Slopes North (Mt Baker)
Posted by samchaneles on 2/24/24 7:30am

Original Trip Report: https://engineeredforadventure.com/coleman-glacier-headwall/


Winter '23/'24 has consisted of plenty of moisture but very high freezing levels. Numerous atmospheric rivers in December and January have done a number on Washington's lower elevation snowpack, leaving it well below average in terms of % SWE. However, that warm and wet snow has pasted upper elevations and kept roads drivable to higher elevations than normal for the time of year.

With a clear day before a pattern change bringing more lowland snow, an opportunity seemed to arise for giving a big mountain line a try. I had seen a picture of Baker's Coleman Glacier Headwall from a friend a few days prior and it looked FAT. Usually there are multiple bergschrunds and blue glacial ice exposed, but it looked clean and smooth. The wheels started to turn in my head...

Looking at the NW face of Mt. Baker. The Coleman Headwall is the face of snow on looker's right.

Friday was going to be the last opportunity for a while. Porter was flying in from Ouray Thursday night and it was going to be a tight turnaround. I messaged back-and-forth with Thomas, the friend-of-a-friend that had showed me the picture. He offered to let me join their group, but I had never skied with him or his partner Manny before. It felt wrong for me to join a group of new partners for a ski of the Coleman Headwall. A line of that consequence, exposure, and commitment deserves respect and having human factors in play didn't feel right to me. I chatted back-and-forth with them and made sure to give them the right to ski the line before us. They had given us the beta and I wouldn't have gone without the picture. Porter and I would start a few hours after them, be on the same radio channel, and operate as two independent groups with the same objective.

Trip Report

Porter and I have a history of skiing steep consequential objectives together. We operate well together, with a similar risk tolerance and way of thinking.

Given that Porter was flying in the night before, we wouldn't be able to drive to the trailhead the night before. I packed some of his gear for him and we agreed on a 4AM departure from North Bend. We'd start around 7AM and figured it'd take us 4-5 or so hours to top out. With a skinner and booter in the Roman Headwall we'd likely catch up to most groups. We knew we could drive to the trailhead and would be hiking dry trail to the Heliotrope Ridge. We planned to bring two ropes, for glacier travel and for having a longer rope length for a ski cut of the line if we wanted it.

We arrived at the trailhead just before 7AM and began hiking right at 7AM. There were around 8-10 cars at the trailhead so clearly some other people thought Baker was the right move for the day too. We cruised through the miles on the trail, keeping on runners until reaching the clearing just below the Hogsback ridge. We cached our shoes in a tree and continued up.

It was windier than expected above treeline. Weather models were calling for 5-10 mph max, but it was certainly gusting up to 20-25mph out of the W/SW. Hmmm...something to note as we kept going up.

Snowline below 7k' was pretty thin but above 7k' was a stark transition to a FAT snowpack. Things on the upper mountain looked pasted. There was evidence of some natural avalanche activity below Colfax and what seemed to be a skier-triggered wind slab in the Moustache line skier's right of the Roman Wall. No activity on the Coleman Headwall itself though.

We passed a few groups as we climbed up a nicely graded skinner to Pumice Ridge. Winds died down on Pumice Ridge and transitioning in the sun was a nice reprieve from the shady north side of the mountain. Curiously the north facing terrain had a widespread zipper crust on it. We couldn't tell if it was a wind or solar crust but it seemed to be a warm, wet wind that rimed up the surface. Not supportable to boots or skis though.

We sighted Thomas and his partner booting up the Roman Wall as we transitioned on Pumice Ridge, as well as a group of 5 ahead of them that were also planning on skiing the Coleman Headwall. CRAZY! I thought we were stepping on Thomas' toes by going after the same line and then a group of 5 is ahead of THEM?!? How many times has the Coleman Headwall been skied by 9 people in one day? I'm sure it's a record.

We threw on some music to grind through the monotony of booting up the Roman Wall. The wind was ripping across the ridgeline, making the climb quite uncomfortable. There wasn't any snow being transported though, as the surface crust held the loose dry snow captive. We weren't too concerned about wind slabs but more-so about surface conditions. Was it going to be a hard punch crust? We'd agreed to at least go to the entrance, throw someone on a ski belay, and give it a try.

We caught Thomas and Manny at the top and they said the group of 5 had just dropped ahead of them. A traffic jam on the Coleman Headwall...wild. The group ahead had changed to our radio channel so everyone was able to communicate. It was wickedly cold with the wind at the top; Porter and I had all of our layers on and were still shivering. Thomas and Manny pushed off ahead of us and we waited to hear them give us a go-ahead.

After many cold minutes, we saw them exit the bottom and they radioed they were out of harm's way. They reported no mandatory airs or much exposed ice (aside from a few scrapey spots). From our perch, we readied. Given that 7 had now skied the line, we opted to not ski belay. I pushed ahead into the steep rollover at the top. The snow was funky...a punchy windboard with slight rime on the surface. The top roll-over is true steep, somewhere around 50 degrees. With shivering legs from the cold, I was tentative on my first turn. I side-slipped in a little ways, getting my bearings. It took me a bit to make my first hop turn but once I did I felt ready for the rest. The first turn is always the most intimidating.

From the roll-over the ski line goes fall line for a few hundred feet. This pitch is incredible. A huge panel of fall-line steeps over huge exposure. The blood vessels are all dilated.

I made calculated jump turns through the punch-board, never linking more than 2 together continuously without stopping. The snow wasn't sloughing but the snow was grabby enough I didn't want to get too much speed going. Riding this line faster would be awesome; today my mission was to ski it in control, make good quality jump turns, and get down safely.

After the fall line panel, I traversed out skier's left underneath a big rock to the fall-line entirety of the line. I radioed to Porter that now I was out of his fall-line he could start skiing. He continued down to me. With sight of the rest of the line, I continued on. The snow was pretty consistent throughout, a punchy windboard. Even though 7 had been on the face, there wasn't too much evidence of it. Tracks were noticeable but filled in with each turn of slough. The ice wasn't too far down if you probed with your pole.

After exiting the bergschrund which went smoothly I skied out to Thomas and Manny. I looked back at Porter taking the last turns and snapped a picture.

I know there's an ethos around style on big lines in the mountains. Here are my thoughts:

  1. We never planned to ski the line first this day. Given that Thomas and his partner gave us the beta and planned to ski it too, we knew we weren't going to be first.
  2. It would have felt less ridiculous if there wasn't a group of 5 ahead of Thomas and Manny. If it was just the 4 of us in total it wouldn't have felt as simple and easy. Some things you can't quite control though.
  3. With a face as big as Coleman Headwall, there's always plenty of room to find your own way even if you're right next to a track. It's a big face.

We party skied out to the sun and looked back to absorb the moment for a second. It felt weirdly smooth. We'd followed a skinner, booter, and now ski track the whole day down a huge alpine face. We were done with the line in 5 hours or so? We were elated that we'd accomplished what we set out to do but there was little to no 'finding out for ourselves'. I was ecstatic in skiing the line but I won't lie that the lack of 'working out the cruxes for ourselves' took something away from it for me.

With plenty of time and a lovely day, Thomas and I proposed that we go check out the Thunder Glacier. At the least we'd skin back up a ways and check it out. If it didn't look good we'd go home. We skinned with Thomas and Manny for a bit, chatting and hanging out, then split up again when our paces diverged.

I tried to keep my day on Shuksan the year prior in my head the whole climb up. Last year Porter and I had skied the NWC, went back up for another line, then had a very close call on the Hanging Glacier. In short, we went for the 'cherry on top' and almost got bit. I didn't want to repeat that. We both emphasized that if we weren't feeling the Thunder going in was totally fine.

We followed a skinner to the top of Colfax West (wow, must have been some locals on the mountain today) and peeked at the Thunder Headwall. There had been HUGE natural avalanches on it, wall-to-wall. That was enough to send us back to the car. No need to add more risk to the day.

In short, I am STOKED Porter and I achieved our goal for the day in such a smooth fashion. But it would have felt more 'earned' if we didn't just follow tracks the whole day. With a 7 AM start we couldn't exactly control that but it's an emotion I can't get rid of.

Nice work guys! Hope to see more TRs like this coming out of the Cascades. I'm not sure if hearing about the party atmosphere makes me want to ski it more ("now everyone and their grandmother has skied the Coleman Headwall, why haven't I?") or less ("Coleman Headwall is the new Muir Snowfield"). Something tells me I'll go do it anyway ;)

Things look surprisingly fat on the upper mountain, thanks for the report!  It almost seemed casual.....

nice read and well done!

yeah what Ryan said.

that line is sweet! you scored good conditions; when (coincidentally) Ryan (sorry bud) and I skied it years ago, there was a short section of sp-icy downclimbing, made spicier by some poor equipment decisions at the car... 

thx for the report, good to see the snowpack is more robust up high--might bode well for bigger and higher lines this spring.

I think if you're really wanting to earn it that bad, go back and do it again without any tracks. But really, it's good to just appreciate that you made it down a very serious line without any mishaps in probably as good dry snow conditions as you will ever get! Take that for what it is. That desire to push further can get you into some fun lines, but it can also lead to the kinds of situations we all want to avoid

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2024-02-24 15:30:35